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Murderous cruise missiles crash into factories, office buildings, farm houses, all just across the border in Serbia, while on the other side of the frontier twelve million Hungarians stare apprehensively into their television sets thinking, “There but for the grace of God goes Hungary.”

Yet, curiously for those who have never experienced it, the presence nearby of war and destruction seems to add for Budapest a positive zest for living. Theaters and concert halls are full. Churches are full. Admitted to NATO only some two weeks before the Atlantic alliance began its massive bombing of Serbia in retaliation for Slobodan Milosevic’s vicious treatment of Kosovo, Hungary is in a mood of veritable rejoicing. After hundreds of years of brutalization by tyrannies of one sort or another from both East and West—from the Huns and Turks to the repressive regimes installed by both Hitler and Stalin—Hungary is at last a bona fide and fully recognized member of the democratic West. At its current rate of economic expansion, moreover, Hungary in perhaps three years will become a member of the European Union, a development which scarcely over a decade ago would have seemed unthinkable for this former Warsaw Pact member.

With the NATO bombing of Serbia in its fourth week and facing the prospect of failure, General William Odom, former director of the U.S. National Security Agency, published an essay in the Wall Street Journal urging the ground invasion of Serbia via Hungary: a high-speed armored ground assault charging down through open country in Hungary to attack Serbia from the north while on its southern flank the country is fighting assorted anti-Serbian forces and pockets of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Macedonia is at this writing the base of more than 20,000 NATO troops, poised for a “permissive” entry into Serbia from the south, and NATO is starting to add troops into Albania to constitute a full-fledged southern front. As opposed to mountainous Serbia, much of Hungary is quite flat—providing the same “corridor” that the German army swept down through in two weeks in World War II on its way to Serbia (where it bogged down). Some have estimated that Gen. Odom’s grand assault on Serbia would require a force of not 20,000, but 200,000, which, pouring into Serbia in a distinctly “non“permissive” manner from both north and south, should bring Milosevic to heel. On the twelfth day of bombing Gen. Odom was joined in his demand for a NATO ground attack on Serbia from Hungary by columnist George Will and by James Woolsey, former Director of Central Intelligence.

An invasion force in the hundreds of thousands, followed by all kinds of armor and military supplies, would certainly transform the idyllic Hungary I have been traveling through, and every single one of the scores of Hungarians I met during my journey expressed horror at the prospect. In the first public-opinion poll taken of the Hungarian population, some 40 percent are opposed to the NATO air strikes against Serbia, and one can imagine the opposition to a ground invasion moving through Hungary itself. Support would be even further diminished by the presence in northern Serbia of 300,000 ethnic Hungarians—whose regional capital, Novi Sad, has seen its bridges and fuel depots blasted since the start of the air campaign. Hungary has nonetheless opened its airspace to NATO warplanes, and has allowed free access to its military facilities, including the air base at Taszar, used at present as a transfer point to the Balkans for troops and supplies coming from Germany.

For much of the last thousand years, Hungary has been a battleground between East and West, and, though pro-Western and contemptuous of Slobodan Milosevic, it is nevertheless sick of the struggle. Hungary is now a loyal member of NATO, of course, and if called upon to provide a “corridor” through which NATO ground forces can reach Serbia, I suspect it will oblige. But with remarkably little enthusiasm. Gen. Odom has suggested that a NATO occupying force might have to remain in Serbia (with support troops doubtless in Hungary) for “decades,” a bitter pill since Soviet troops left Hungary not so long ago. Hungarians will remind you that the fiercest military rising against Moscow during the entire Soviet imperium was carried out in 1956 by Hungary. Although the country at present is in a state of historically unprecedented prosperity, here and there in Budapest a building pockmarked by artillery (German, Soviet from World War II, or Soviet from the 1956 rising) recalls the country’s unhappy past.

Budapest is one of the world’s most visually dramatic capitals. Now home to some two million ethnically diverse citizens, the city is divided in two by the majestic Danube, flowing its muddy way—only occasionally blue—southwards. From the hilly side of the city, Buda, one has a most remarkable panoramic view of the other side of the Danube, Pest, double in size and completely flat. For centuries the two parts of the city were entirely separate; they were joined only 125 years ago to form the modern metropolis.

Buda is a tourist’s delight: cobblestone streets, Roman ruins, castles converted into museums, dazzling views, catacombs, and surely one of the most original Hilton hotels anywhere in the world—incorporating the ruins of a medieval Dominican church. History is everywhere. Buda in the fifteenth century was one of the glories of the Western world. In succeeding centuries it underwent brutal sieges, first by Turks, then Austrians, then Nazi Germans. At the end of World War II, in January 1945, Hitler’s army held out in Budapest for a month”the 31st siege in the city’s history.

Pest, which seen from the vantage point of the “Fisherman’s Bastion” atop Castle Hill stretches for miles, is very much an energized, modern city. Street graffiti artists have been at work on much of the wall space, and Budapest citizens—clad these days more often than not in jeans and leisure garb—stroll along, cell phones clutched to their ears. On fair days the city’s cafes are filled, in a style much like that of Paris or Rome. Pedestrian walkways in the city center, a few blocks from the Danube, boast signs of Gianni Versace, Estée Lauder, Giorgio Armani, as well as foreign-language bookshops. But ubiquitous McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and neon signs promoting Coca Cola and Pepsi do not efface the city’s inimitable character.

A century ago, in 1896, Hungarians celebrated with great ceremony the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of their nation. “Pannonia,” as this part of Europe was known in Roman times, was the capital of Attila the Hun. Hungarian myth and legend are full of Attila, who, having stormed and pillaged Rome, retreated to a border settlement in present-day Hungary. Modern Hungarians, myth notwithstanding, are not descendants of the ancient Huns. Dominant in the ethnic composition of modern-day Hungary are in fact another nomadic Eastern people, the Magyars (the word meaning “Hungarian” in modern Hungarian). The Magyars settled in the Carpathian Basin at the end of the ninth century, almost two hundred years before the Normans conquered England in 1066. Saint Istvan (Stephen), descendant of Arpad who led an alliance of conquering tribes from the East, was crowned the first Christian king of Hungary with a crown sent from Rome for the purpose by the Pope. King Stephen organized his kingdom quickly and efficiently and was subsequently canonized. Hungary rapidly became a leader of Christian Europe, for centuries fighting to hold back the waves of pagan nomads attacking from the East.

During the Renaissance and Reformation the kingdom of Hungary finally fell—not to any pagan tribe, but to the Turk—and for 150 years, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Hungary languished under Ottoman rule. But when the yoke of Istanbul was finally thrown off, and when the wars of religion between Catholic and Protestant also came to an end, Hungary”curiously for this part of the world”was left with a thriving Protestant community. Following the Reformation, Roman authority and the Catholic faith were firmly reestablished in neighboring Austria, yet to this day magnificent Protestant churches survive all over Hungary”and are full on Sunday. Budapest has not one but two splendid Protestant churches, and one of them, in the center of Budapest, the “Calvinist” church, presides over what is plainly marked by a street sign as “Calvin Square.” Hungary, before Hitler, was also one of the centers of world Jewry, Jews accounting for 5 percent of the country’s population. There are synagogues that remain and are still open.

Those familiar with the tragic history of the Holocaust will recall that Admiral Miklos Horthy, authoritarian ruler of Hungary under Hitler, was quite reluctant to cooperate with the Nazis in their anti-Semitic program. Although most citizens of the Allied countries tend to assume Horthy and Hungary were wholehearted allies of the Nazis, hostility between Hitler and the Hungarians was such that in March 1944 a German army invaded Hungary and arrested its leaders. At war’s end Hungary held a war crimes trial and, just like France, executed the country’s leading Nazi collaborators. Photographs of Hungary’s postwar trials and hangings are on conspicuous and permanent display in Budapest’s National History Museum.

No Hungarians were hanged for collaborating with the Soviets, of course, but Budapest has hit on a rather whimsical way of remembering the Soviet occupation. All the pious pro-Communist statues that the Soviets erected in Hungary—Marx, Lenin, Stalin, heroic Soviet soldiers, Bela Kun (leader of a Soviet-style revolutionary regime that ruled Hungary for six months in 1919 following the Bolshevik victory in Russia)—have been gathered together in a morgue-like place Budapest residents refer to as “Statue Park.” Bela Kun himself, having fled to the Soviet Union, disappeared in the Moscow purges of the 1930s and was only rehabilitated after Stalin’s death. With only 4 percent of Hungarians now voting Communist, “Statue Park” in present-day Budapest has a peculiarly ironic effect.

In honor of a national culture that has survived conquest after conquest and rather amazingly still thrives today, Hungarians this year are celebrating, not the future, but their distinguished past, with a huge assemblage of artistic events—concerts, operas, art shows, ballets—all under the title “Farewell to the XXth Century.”

Enthusiastic crowds fill performances at almost every one of Budapest’s forty theaters. The city is swamped by tourists from Austria and Germany and, for those who don’t understand Hungarian (a language not related to any other European language than Finnish), German over-titles are often projected at the top of a theater’s proscenium arch, giving not only the summary of words to operas and plays, but the names of every movement of a musical composition.

Driving about today’s Budapest, one is constantly reminded of what are still felt to be this former imperial city’s greatest days in the modern period—what the French call La Belle Epoque—the decades about one hundred years ago, when Budapest was the fastest growing city in Europe, and one of the largest and richest cities in the world. It had at the time the world’s largest stock exchange, its grandest parliament building, and continental Europe’s first underground rail system (ahead even of New York, which did not yet have the subway). Budapest had a bustling, cosmopolitan, commercial sector. Hungary was at the time three times its present size, and included much of present“day Romania, Slovakia, Croatia, and southern Poland. A large portion of Budapest’s population consisted of families from the non“Hungarian provinces, and as a whole the country’s folkways were so exotic, with traces of oriental ancestry (and its language being indisputably Asian), that in Europe Hungary was conventionally thought of as having one foot in the West and one foot in East.

It was in any case Europe’s great pleasure capital, with a flourishing high culture—literature, theater, art—and, on the wicked end of the spectrum, an abundance of high“class brothels, gambling dens, casinos, and race tracks. A school of modern art that left its mark on an extraordinary number of wonderful Budapest buildings and dates from the end of the nineteenth century is called, in the West, “Art Nouveau” and, in Hungary (eccentrically), “Secession Art.” To this day among the ornaments of Budapest is its mass of “Secession” art and architecture—with baroque elements far more florid than Art Nouveau in the West. The rich succession of the country’s national styles, including Moorish, was celebrated in Budapest with a renowned exposition a century ago, and is being recalled this year by the city’s splendid exhibitions and performances in its “Farewell to the XXth Century.”

When, talking to a Hungarian friend, one hears a reference to a great defeat for Hungary, or, by contrast, the beating back of an invader, it is not always clear which invader the Hungarian friend is talking about. The Mongols, terrible people, were beaten back (or simply withdrew) in 1242, but Hungarian armies were utterly defeated by the Turks in 1526. Turkish occupation of the country lasted for 150 years, and came to an end only when the Turks were conquered by Austria’s Hapsburgs in 1686. After failed earlier efforts, the Hungarians revolted against Hapsburg rule in 1848 (a year when there were revolutions all over Europe), and this time they succeeded, the whole business ending in the “Great Austro-Hungarian Compromise” of 1867.

The Compromise led to Hungary being semi-independent, a curious situation lasting until Woodrow Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles—according to which Hungary achieved complete independence but lost two-thirds of its territory. (Everyone I talked to in Budapest had heard of Monica Lewinsky, incidentally, but the Scarlet Woman most deeply engraved on Hungarian national memory is French Premier Georges Clemenceau’s daughter-in-law, a Hungarian and an extreme Hungarian nationalist. Explain it as you will, but according to every Hungarian I encountered, Clemenceau quite hated his outspoken daughter-in-law and punished Hungary in consequence. It’s hard for an outsider not to have some reservations about this account, but it is widely held there.)

The political alignments of Hungary from the mid-nineteenth century to the present are more familiar to the West than the period when Hungary was struggling with Turks or even Austrians. From 1867 to the end of World War I the country was free and independent, but had the misfortune in World War I of allying itself with the “Central Powers” (Germany, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire). With the rise of Hitler in Germany, Hungary was once again on the wrong side. And after World War II it was yet again occupied by an anti-democratic power, though this time not by an ally of its own choosing, but by the Soviet Union. Having been so often unfortunate in its allies, Hungary seems thoroughly prepared to sit out the present conflict in Yugoslavia if this can be done without imperiling its hard-won new position as a “Western” power.

And a cosmopolitan power. In an age when nations are fragmenting—with some thirty-five civil wars underway over the face of the globe and cultural hatreds dormant sometimes for centuries now reawakening—Hungary seems to display a truly remarkable degree of cosmopolitan tolerance. Catholic cathedrals, Protestant churches, Greek Orthodox churches, and Jewish synagogues jostle each other on the streets. Gypsies (although not always popular) swarm in certain districts. Hungarian schoolchildren consistently get the highest grades of any Western country on international tests, particularly in the sciences. The country’s musical culture flourishes, with Hungary’s Bela Bartok considered by some to be modern music’s greatest composer. International stars come to Budapest to perform, from Russian cellist Misha Maisky playing Dvorak at the Budapest Opera, to Germany’s Kurt Masur conducting the London Philharmonic’s performance of Bruckner at the Budapest Convention Center. The Budapest Synagogue, Europe’s biggest and grandest, where Franz Liszt once played the organ, has a performance of Richard Nanes’ Hebraic Lament. Audiences reward all these performances with huge ovations.

Richard Strauss reworked Sophocles’ Electra into an opera. Since Strauss’ time, prosperity and popular democracy have come to Hungary: a Hungarian theater company now performs the Sophocles-Strauss Electra at the Danube Shopping Mall, while people continue to shop, or to ice skate at the mall’s indoor rink. So Hungary offers us ice skating to Sophocles. This surely is cosmopolitan.

Richard Grenier is a writer living in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is Capturing the Culture: Film, Art, and Politics.

Image by Jorge Franganillo licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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